Christopher Okigbo



Labyrinths revisited

Okigbo Meets Soyinka

It is no exaggeration to say that the past two years have been an emotional rollercoaster ride for Obiageli Okigbo, the daughter Ibrahimat to whom, together with her mother Sefinat, Christopher Okigbo dedicated his collected poems, Labyrinths. Work on Labyrinths began in 1964, the year his daughter was born, and in an exchange with Robert Serumaga the following year, Okigbo revealed that her birth was the happiest moment of his life. 1964 was a good year, then, for Okigbo because that was the year he delivered his two most lasting legacies.

The younger Okigbo grew up with her mother, Ambassador Judith Attah, and her sisters, and then studied architecture in England. She married, moved to Belgium, had two children of her own, and set herself up as an artist. But the legacy of the father she barely knew inescapably dogged her steps. Only two and a half years old when her father died in 1967, she was shielded from the trauma by her stoic and industrious mother, and the love and non-intrusive care of her father's family. Two years ago, at 38, she felt ready to begin the frightening pilgrim's journey towards her father.

It has been a most interesting journey, and her appearance, vivacious and fully-grown, has brought joy to many who knew her father, but also revived a long-buried pain. The most overwhelming thing for her, she says, is the love that so many have for her father, especially the friends who met and knew him. When they meet her, elderly men in their seventies avert her eyes and lapse into long silences as they struggle to hold back tears. Of these men the closest to her father by all accounts was Chinua Achebe. When she met him for the first time in Germany two years ago, she recalls, the great novelist could not meet her eyes. It was too heavily weighted, too painful. Same when she met J.P. Clark, whom her father had chosen at her birth to serve as god-father. Same with Ulli Beier, Ben Obumselu, Odumegwu-Ojukwu, and a host of others whom she has sought out over the past two years in her quest for information about her father, and as part of her efforts to build a network for the foundation that she has established in her father's name, the Christopher Okigbo Foundation. At her meeting with Ojukwu, the war leader had an assembly waiting, including a Biafra army captain who witnessed her father's last minutes. Even those who never met her father but strongly identified with his work, his person, and his principles, have reacted with equal emotion; like Ali Mazrui, whose only published novel was a powerful, passionate lament of Okigbo's decision to sacrifice art to politics. This week at his office at the Global Institute at State University of New York, Binghamton the author of The Trial of Christopher Okigbo met the daughter of the hero of his novel.

After her reunion with Achebe and JP Clark, there was one more inevitable meeting before the circle could complete; she had to meet the man who probably most closely shared her father's radical, adventurist persona and rowdy intellect, the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. Again, the meeting took forever to arrange. It seemed as if the great playwright, like others, was not quite ready yet. Arrangements were cancelled at the last minute, schedules amended, venues moved around, but both in their own ways were determined to meet. This week, at a restaurant not far from Lincoln Center in New York, Christopher Okigbo's daughter met the last of her father's mythical trio.

It was an emotional affair and, although yours truly had been invited along as the only other witness, it was nevertheless a very private affair during which the usually ebullient playwright appeared subdued as he detailed fond memories of escapades with the late poet at the now legendary Cambridge House, Okigbo's official residence in Ibadan. Your father, your father... he would begin, then momentarily retreat into a private mental place to resolve the pain of recollection as well as the appropriateness of revelation, before he would offer yet another wondrous story of wild adventure or historic import. Your father...I hope you know this...your father literally built the library at Nsukka... he noted, for instance, pausing to correct and contextualize the facts, although what he mostly did was sit in the middle of the huge piles of newly arrived boxes of books and read. Memories of more exciting ventures brought out snippets of his own wild youth. He used to ride a loud motor-cycle, he recalled, for instance, and whenever a certain friend came to visit, he would advise him to remain at the station so he could fetch him. Then, he would mount his bike, don a painted straw basket which served as his helmet, and roar into town, a cloud of dust around him. Your father used to ride, too, he told the younger Okigbo, till he had a major accident. That bit of the Okigbo myth was hitherto unknown to many. More salacious details the professor merely alluded to with a smile and a titillating you don't want to go there.

Apparently the relationship between Soyinka and the Okigbo family was not entirely broken with the poet's death. Several years ago, he recalled, the poet's widow, Ambassador Attah, as Nigeria's ambassador to Italy, had shown extreme kindness to a troupe that he led to a theatre festival in Siena. One day she showed up with pots full of sorely missed Nigerian cuisine for the entire group, enough, in fact, for participants from other countries who were at the festival. What a feast! he recalled.

Okigbo's meeting with Soyinka was also about business the details of which her foundation will make public in due course. Most important, however, it was history come full circle thirty-eight years after the poet met with Soyinka in the latter's detention cell, for the last time, before heading out to do what he felt he had to do, and then on into history.

I've gone through many different phases, Obiageli Okigbo mentions in conversation. For instance, this week she obtained an edition of Sunday Anozie's critical study of her father's work in which there is a full, frontal headshot of the poet. It is the first photograph of him she'd seen in which he looks straight up with his eyes open, and that was difficult, she says. Even more jolting was the occasion in 2003 when yours truly accompanied her to the Schomburg Library in New York where she heard her father's voice for the first time. At 38 her image of a father was understandably of someone older, in their seventies, perhaps. Little could prepare her for the moment when the voice came through on the earphones, piped in from behind the wooden doors of the archives at the Schomburg where I discovered the tape in 2000, and it was that of a man in his early thirties, high-pitched, insouciant, and much younger than her. The poet, of course, died before he reached her age. Thanks to the generosity of the curator at the Schomburg, the tape and many more are now part of the collection of the Christopher Okigbo Foundation, currently based in Brussels, as are a chest of manuscripts and papers preserved by the poet's family, though the later were badly damaged due to neglect after his brother, the economist Pius Okigbo, passed away.

Difficult at times as it is, however, the younger Okigbo's journey is nevertheless a joyous one. In addition to his great work, she observes, he left so much love with people. At which point yours truly added to her shock and awe by asking; Did you know of the Kenyan writer, Chika Okigbo? Apparently she was unaware of Kenyan writer Andiah Kisia, who won the BBC African Performance Playwriting Competition in 2003 under the pseudonym, Chika Okigbo. When I was a little younger, I went through an Igbo phase, wanting to be a Nigerian, Kisia told the BBC after she won the 800 pounds sterling prize second time running in 2003. I was fascinated with Igbo writing, folklore, and Onitsha market literature. Christopher Okigbo, who died during the Biafran war, was my favourite poet. First, she took the alias cokigbo as an email moniker, and then added Chika for her pseudonym. Over the phone Obiageli Okigbo betrayed a moment of confusion and apprehension at the question, bearing in mind her father's legendary prowess with the fairer sex, but was relieved to learn that the writer in question was only a distant, literary offspring: Another moment of discovery on her eventful journey towards her father.

Olu Oguibe 12.06.04